Vinay Kanchan
Guest Article

The light of branding insights from 'The Dark Knight'

Batman has risen once again to protect Gotham City. Here's what the character's journey can teach brand marketers.

Actor Robert Pattinson and director Matt Reeves have flagged off yet another cycle of the Batman saga in the collective conscious. In his ninth decade of existence, it seems the darker this character gets, the more his prospects brighten with audiences. That paradox in itself, points towards the many lessons he kindles for brand marketers. For Bob Kane’s enigmatic creation - one of the earliest superheroes introduced - continues to stoically stand the test of time.

And, in doing so, he lights up the path for brand custodians, trying to essay super heroic tales of their own in the crowded marketplace.

Turning around the ‘unpleasant’

The bat is not really high on the list of children’s favourite creatures, or anyone’s for that matter. And yet, the Batman is extremely popular. Children like his costume, gadgets and dramatic penchant for limb-risking action.

Adults find themselves drawn towards his brooding depth and his heroic attempt to transcend his human limitations. He is a superhero who endures. All the more surprising, considering he is based on something most people find inherently unpleasant. Something which they literally go ‘bats’ about.

In many ways, this points to the magical power of great storytelling. This is one device, which can decisively ‘recast’ things in people’s eyes. Reflect on how the insurance industry in India, began to make inroads when the conversation shifted from “what happens after your death”, towards the sunnier “how can you live your life, worry free”.

Think about how spinach was suddenly perceived differently by kids, after watching Popeye. Ponder the deeds of the Volkswagen team, when it was able to spin an interesting and quirky tale, around an oddly shaped car, and create a perceptual road which would drive the Beetle to cult status. The right story has the power to reposition anything.

Vinay Kanchan
Vinay Kanchan

Starting on a note which decides the future score

The Batman is undoubtedly one of the darkest characters going around. But if one revisits the story of his origin, it is not surprising to see why. Young Bruce Wayne is witness to the brutal murder of his parents. That is the kind of experience one, perhaps, seldom recovers from. The scars of that memory linger through his entire life. They are reflected in his every action. This largely explains his sombre nature, his reluctance to smile and his fixation with meting out justice in a vengeful manner.

The first steps of any brand launch, are critical. In these days of rapid responsiveness, the temptation is to lean towards activity of some sort, rather than a focus on getting it right. There’s always some merit to be found in that. But as the old adage goes, “One never gets a second chance to make a first impression”. Along those lines, the legacy and expectation every Apple brand enters with, owes a debt of gratitude to iconic pieces of communication like ‘1984’ and ‘Think Different’.

Flipkart created a huge buzz and seeded all the right ideas, with its famous inception campaign that featured children acting as adults. This counter-intuitive narrative, helped people associate the brand with making online shopping - an activity viewed with circumspection till then - virtually as a case of ‘child’s play’. Well begun is truly half way done in the case of branding.

Finding strength in weakness

The Batman is a prominent member of the Justice League. This, a ‘dream team’, featuring the likes of Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash and others; who align forces to take on the world’s greatest threats. All the rest are supremely powered individuals, with out of the ordinary abilities, or ‘superpowers’, to put this in comic parlance.

In this elite bunch, the Batman holds his own by being himself - ‘merely human’, even if he is stretching his physical and mental capabilities to the limit. This is an aspect which, perhaps, endears him even more to fans. His ordinariness makes everything he does in that company, all the more extraordinary.

Being authentic, even a candid acknowledgement of one’s weaknesses, always represents a smart brand strategy. What is often forgotten, is that brands are eventually meant to be ‘human’ personifications of products. And, humans are deeply flawed. Anytime I look in the mirror confirms that hypothesis. Citing one’s weaknesses is not just bold, it makes the brand forge even deeper connections.

The responsible and humane manner in which Johnson & Johnson (J&J), addressed a tampering issue in Tylenol, by calling back millions of packs, resulting in huge losses, so resonated with the market, that when the brand re-entered the fray, it was probably in an even stronger position. At a time when ketchups were becoming easier to extract from their bottles, Heinz positioned its thickness and viscosity, as indicators of greater richness. Being yourself always is the best thing, even if one needs an insightful angle to ‘sauce up’ the story.

Creating cues that are great call backs

The Batman has a range of carefully designed associations, which remind people of him, even when he might not actually be present. There is his iconic emblem, which adorns so many T-shirts these days. Then, there is the Bat-Signal - used to summon him. The Batmobile - every car lover’s dream vehicle, and every traffic controller’s nightmare. The pod (modified bike) and the Bat (plane). Even a sort of ‘utility belt’, with various things to help on his exploits. And, who can forget the Batarang (loosely inspired from the Boomerang).

Creating ‘signature cues’ for brands is often a good idea, especially when it comes to cementing brand associations. Chancing upon a set of pointy ears, even if displayed in a showcase, brings back memories of Mr Spock and Star Trek. Nokia’s distinctive ringtone, helped it initially raise its voice clearly in the cell phone market.

The sight of a welcoming Maharaja, directs people even in a cluttered airport space to the Air India counter. These elaborately engineered ‘triggers’, feed back into the positive perceptions consumers have of those brands. And while they are never quite the entire story, they have the happy knack of appropriating a few important pages to themselves.

Battling powerful adversaries

A hero is only as interesting as the villains he takes on. And, this is where the Batman saga really has an edge in comicverse. Over the years, and across the movies, his collection of nemesis has been utterly fascinating. The Joker. The Riddler. The Penguin. Two-Face. Ra’s al Ghul. This ‘rogues gallery’ is an enviable and formidable one.

Each of them, contrast brilliantly with the Batman’s rather solemn persona, and add the emotional and expressional layers found missing in him. Be it uncontrolled, over the top, manic behaviour. A predisposition for punchlines. And, an extroversion in personality. They make his entire universe far more interesting. They ‘complete’ him, even if hate rather than love, is the dominant emotion at play here.

Seen in a more imaginative way, brands also wage their own heroic battles. They take on arch enemies of a different kind who, even if world domination and chaos is not on their minds, are foes that need to be overcome to smoothen the lives of consumers. Surf Excel’s journey in India lately, has been considerably accelerated with its ongoing mission of keeping dirt at bay, and allowing children to engage in the real world, without the fear of getting their clothes soiled.

Tortoise, for many years, has celebrated the single-minded focus of keeping homes safe, by keeping mosquitoes and flies (and, hence, disease) at bay. Byju’s leads the charge of educational brands, tasked with making the whole process of learning more interesting. In a sense, they battle boredom, lack of engagement and subject ignorance that might prove to be harmful. Put another way, a brand always does better, when it has something to take aim at.

Providing the escape of an alter ego

One of the most fascinating aspects in the Batman legend, is that he lives two distinctly different lives. As Bruce Wayne, he is the billionaire playboy, the leader of a vast business empire, and a tech savvy innovator. Then, as night beckons, Bruce Wayne becomes the Batman - the scourge of all criminals in Gotham. An avenging angel, who is feared by the bad (and even the good, at times).

This duality in identity is what, perhaps, enables him to perform extraordinary feats and live an uncommon life. The facility of being able to slip into literally another world is, undoubtedly, something which keeps him going. One role offers relief and succour, when the other begins to get tiresome.

Brands historically have always allowed people to experience an alternate perspective. They have opened up ‘magical portals’, by means of which consumers have travelled to different realities. This has been one of their greatest allures. Harley-Davidson liberated many generations of Americans from the confines of a dull desk job over the week, allowing them to experience the adrenaline rush of unfettered freedom via rides on the weekend.

This is a theme which finds recurrence, in the communication of several four-wheel drive automotive brands these days. L’Oréal elevates the self-image of anyone applying it, to the level of the celebrity being shown as the endorser. Because the consumer is absolutely ‘worthy’ of that comparison, being no less a star herself. Brands enable us, even if for fleeting moments in a day, to take on the garb and perspective of a new ‘avatar’.

To conclude, those are just a few of the lateral lessons the mythology of the Batman provides brand custodians. There could be many more. Perhaps, this could serve as a cue, to add a bit of super heroic flavour and energy, the next time a brand challenge in being discussed. For, in the end, we too want our brands to take flight, overcome barriers and push the boundaries. We too want our brands to make dramatic entries, breaking perceptual chandeliers along the way in eye-catching fashion. And, who better than the Batman to inspire us along those lines?

(Vinay Kanchan is a brand storyteller, innovation catalyst and the author of ‘Sportivity’, ‘Lessons from the Playground’ and ‘The Madness Starts at 9’.)

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